Seventh-grade teacher John Wensman explains an assignment to Ollie Kramer, left, and Lucy Collins at Fiddlehead School of Arts and Sciences in Gray. It has no tests or grades, although students do take state and national assessments. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Eight years ago Penny Collins was looking for a kindergarten for her daughter, Lucy, and researching schools in Maine. She and her husband had already put their house up for sale and considered moving to another community – one with better schools – when they learned Lucy’s pre-K teacher would be pursuing an expansion as one of the first charter schools in the state.

“I really hemmed and hawed about it because I thought, ‘If we get in here, it’s just luck. Is it fair to everyone else we get to go here?'” Collins said. “And it’s kind of an experiment because it hadn’t even started yet.”

The Collinses decided to take their chances on the experiment and today Lucy, a seventh grader, and her sister Rose, a second grader, are thriving at the Fiddlehead School of Arts & Science in Gray. The girls are among more than 2,600 Maine students who attend charter schools 10 years after they were first authorized in Maine.

The milestone is an important one because it’s the length of time the state originally set for when it would re-evaluate a 10-school cap on charter schools, which are public schools that operate independently of any school district and where parents choose to send their children. Lawmakers acted preemptively in 2019 to continue the cap and the Maine Charter School Commission the same year granted its last charter to the Ecology Learning Center in Unity.

A lot has happened since 2011, when the idea of introducing charter schools in Maine prompted polarizing debate in the Legislature over whether the move would undermine traditional public schools. Legislative debates persist, including over a controversial bill this session that called for more charter school accountability. Some critics, however, have been pacified as tweaks to the law have been made and as Maine has kept a limited number of schools.

Nichi Farnham was a Republican state senator at the time the charter school legislation, sponsored by then-Sen. Garrett Mason and supported by Gov. Paul LePage, came to a vote in 2011. “I had to oppose it because my superintendents were like, ‘No way,'” Farnham said. She cited the initial funding mechanism, which allowed per-pupil dollars to shift from a student’s home district to the charter school.

That funding model changed in 2015 to spread the cost more evenly across the state, and Farnham now chairs the charter commission. “My only wish is more people knew about the schools and how they really work,” she said. “I think there’s still a misunderstanding about the fact they are public schools… There are some real challenges, but I think some kids have really found their place in education by being at one of those schools.”

Charter schools are independently operated public schools that are required to teach by state standards like any other school, but vary widely in their specific approach. They often serve certain student populations, such as those who are at-risk or have special needs, or offer a specialized curriculum around themes such as hands-on learning, the performing arts or online instruction.

Pre-kindergarten students in Judy Kann’s classroom use a magnifying glass to look at grass growing in an aquarium at the Fiddlehead School of Arts and Sciences in Gray. The charter school employs a hands-on approach to learning and uses a lottery system to admit students. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The schools are free to attend and enrollment is open to any Maine student, although several schools have had to use lotteries when demand for seats outweighs the number available. The charter commission sets a performance framework for holding the schools accountable and is responsible for authorizing and renewing charters and requiring regular reporting.

The commission recently named a new executive director, Jeremy Jones, who is establishing new goals for the schools as they turn the page from a new idea in Maine to fixtures in the education landscape. The state also released a first-of-its-kind report last year, just prior to the coronavirus pandemic, on the overall impact of charter schools on education in Maine.

“Charter schools offer alternatives to Maine families,” the report said. “Although it is early in the development of Maine charter schools, the evidence indicates a promising start to providing alternatives for students who have difficulty attending public school, need a flexible, self-directed educational approach or need virtual learning options.”

Overall enrollment in Maine’s charter schools makes up less than 2 percent of the state’s 172,500 public school students. But in many places around the country, charters have been controversial as critics have voiced concerns that the schools represent an attack on the traditional public school system and threaten funding and resources for traditional schools. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, charter school growth accelerated rapidly between the 2005-06 school year and 2015-16, but has since slowed.

William Mathis, a senior policy advisor at the National Education Policy Center, said that may be because charter schools in general have not posted better academic results than traditional schools and in some cases have raised concerns about segregation of students by race and socio-economic status. Most charter schools nationally are in urban areas and run by large organizations. “They don’t show any advantage over public schools when you take into account socio-economic status,” Mathis said. “They perform and teach about the same.”

The state report on charter schools released in February 2020 found lower outcomes than non-charter public schools in science and math achievement, as well as in four-year high school graduation rates and post-secondary enrollment. Five- and six-year graduation rates tended to be higher at the charter schools.

Seventh-grader Lucy Collins works on an assignment at Fiddlehead School of Arts and Sciences in Gray. She and her sister Rose, a second-grader, are thriving at the school, their mother says.  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

But the report also cautioned against drawing direct comparisons between charter and traditional schools and said the charter schools tend to serve students who may have had difficulty in traditional school environments.

According to the report, the graduation rate at charter schools was 72 percent in 2018-2019 compared to 88 percent at non-charter schools. Additionally, 49 percent of charter school students went on to post-secondary education compared to 62 percent of non-charter students.

“We will acknowledge it is lower,” said Jones, the charter commission’s executive director. “The important thing to note is our schools are babies. They are still trying to figure out how to improve these things. Our schools are focused on it every day and it’s something that at the commission level we’re constantly focused on as well.”

Performance at individual schools has been mixed. Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, a grades 7-12 school in Portland focused on science, engineering and math, was ranked the fifth-best high school in Maine last month by U.S. News & World Report. The school has a graduation rate of 93 percent and its students routinely score above state averages on assessments.

But the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Hinckley, the state’s first charter school, has a four-year graduation rate of 64 percent. In 2018-19, only 29 percent of students scored at or above expectations in English on state assessments and only 16 percent scored at or above expectations in math.

Matt Newberg, head of the Hinckley school, said the graduation rate and state test scores, which are based off the SAT for high school juniors, don’t tell the whole story of the school.

Jacinda Cotton-Castro, executive director of the Fiddlehead School of Arts and Sciences, shows students’ work on the walls. She said that being able to offer choice and flexibility to families led her to pursue a charter for what she started as a private pre-kindergarten program. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Sixty-one percent of students at the school, which is focused on agriculture and forestry, are economically disadvantaged, compared to 41 percent statewide. Thirty-six percent have disabilities – compared to 18 percent statewide – which Newberg said has contributed to a higher five- and six-year graduation rate of 82 percent.

“A lot of our students are coming from difficult circumstances,” Newberg said. “Our students don’t always have an easy time getting to school and some of them have to work. For some, not all, it certainly slows down the timeline and their progress towards graduation.”

Thalia Barden, who graduated from the Threshold program, a blended learning program at the academy that helps students get their degrees through a mix of in-person and at-home learning, said without the program she doesn’t think she would have graduated. Barden, 19, was previously homeschooled and struggled to adapt to in-person school when she enrolled her freshman year. She returned to homeschooling before an advisor from the school reached out and encouraged her to enroll in Threshold, whose students include teen parents, students with anxiety and others who face barriers to being at school in-person full-time.

“I was in a really lost phase where the end of high school was hurtling towards me and I didn’t have a plan,” said Barden, who graduated in 2019. She now works as a nanny and is considering enrolling in community college after a teacher in Threshold encouraged her to take her first college class while in the program. “It was a really great experience that I didn’t have the confidence to do and she really helped me find a lot of confidence in my ability and my voice as a writer,” Barden said.

At Fiddlehead, the school in Gray, Executive Director Jacinda Cotton-Castro said being able to offer choice and flexibility to families was what attracted her to pursue a charter for what she had initially started as a private pre-K program. “In Maine, the options are challenging. If your child doesn’t fit in a traditional school, your options are private school or homeschooling. To have choice, to me, is great,” Cotton-Castro said.

Fiddlehead, like many of Maine’s charter schools, emphasizes a hands-on approach to learning. The school is founded on the Reggio Emilia approach, which uses students’ interests to drive curriculum. There are no tests or grades, although students do take state and national assessments.

Pre-kindergarten teacher Judy Kann asks her students to listen to her as they get ready to end their day at Fiddlehead School of Arts and Sciences. Kann has been with the school for 19 years, long before it was a charter school. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Early on in her academic career, Lucy Collins was on her own timeline for things like learning to read or mastering the days of the week. “The staff at Fiddlehead let Lucy develop her learning at her own pace and they encouraged us to be okay with it,” said her mother, Penny Collins, who also serves on the school’s board of directors. “Talk about an experiment. I was really holding my breath.”

In sixth grade, Penny Collins said, Lucy’s confidence, her writing and her artistic skills exploded. “I think she’ll enter high school on pace with her peers and feeling really good about herself,” Collins said. “I don’t think that would have been her experience in a traditional school setting.”

“I like it because we don’t only focus on classic education,” said Lucy Collins, 13. “We do focus on that but we also do things like civil rights and stuff like that. We did some history from Native Americans’ point of view and I agree that you get to know the teachers on a more personal level.”

Still, charter schools have continued to draw the scrutiny of some lawmakers. “I think it’s been decidedly mixed,” said Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, co-chair of the Legislature’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs, when asked about the performance of charter schools to date. “Particularly with the virtual charter schools, we’ve had significant attendance problems as well as (concerns with) academic performance.”

Brennan is the sponsor of LD 604, a bill that sought more accountability for charter schools by requiring a separate line item in the state budget for charter school funding and by requiring charter schools to receive approval from the commissioner of education for facilities expansions.

At a public hearing last month, Brennan said when he was re-elected to the Legislature in 2019 it was difficult to track down the amount of state spending on charter schools and how that amount has changed over the years. More than 80 people testified on the bill before the education committee, which voted to replace it with a resolve directing the Department of Education to study charter school funding methods and reporting protocols.

John Wensman teaches his seventh-grade class at Fiddlehead School of Arts and Sciences in Gray. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Many of those who testified were parents and students who voiced concern the bill would hurt existing charter schools. The legislative committees of the Maine School Boards Association and Maine School Management Association, however, testified in support of the bill.

Steve Bailey, executive director of the associations, said funding for charter schools remains a concern among traditional school leaders. “As public schools, we should be the best choice in town and our schools should continue to strive for those levels of choices for students within our communities,” Bailey said. “That is one of the challenges as well as one of the goals of typical public schools, is to provide those choices for students. We would far prefer to see the funding available for (general purpose aid) and have that money go to support the (traditional) public schools.”

Jones, the charter school commission’s executive director, has no plans right now to try and change the 10-school cap and has his own ideas for how to improve the schools. That includes improving the governing boards – which are appointed rather than elected like traditional school boards – so they can better hold the schools accountable. Other priorities include finding ways to better support the heads of charter schools so they can focus on education rather than the business side of things and promoting collaboration between charter and traditional public schools.

At Fiddlehead, Cotton-Castro is interested in offering a certificate for teachers at traditional schools in the Reggio Emilia approach. She recently participated in a state program seeking to develop educator-driven ideas for innovation in schools through which she is hoping to secure grant funding for the certificate.

“Many schools are doing different things in the state of Maine and it shouldn’t be an us versus them,” Cotton-Castro said. “We’re in it together for the children of Maine. We’re ready to share what we do as well as learn from others and what they’re doing.”

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